Sitting on the bank of a swampy lake, with not a hill in sight, and an unforgiving weather pattern, Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable became the first non-native settler of the Chicago River in the 1770’s. French explorers had been attracted to the land, perfectly situated at the base of the Chicago and Des Plaines rivers, for its transportation potential. Jean Baptiste became the first to establish a trading post on the Chicago river, marking the beginning of the next great American city. On August 13, 1803 with a population of about 300, the Town of Chicago (the name deriving from the Miami-Illinois word for “stinky onion”) became incorporated, and was then granted a city charter in 1837.
The French explorers were correct in their vision of the land becoming a transportation Mecca. In 1848 the Illinois and Michigan Canal opened to allow shipping from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico by way of the Mississippi River. In the same year the Galena and Chicago Union railroads were built, surpassing water transportation. Today, much of the countries freight transportation passes through Chicago. Also, at the same time, marking economic development, the Chicago Board of Trade was born with 82 businessmen, and still goes strong today in downtown Chicago.
Chicago’s transportation success caused a rapid population growth, with a population of 4,000 in 1833 to 90,000 in 1857. By 1870 it was the second largest city in the country. The intense population growth caused severe problems for the early city’s environment, which was emphasized by severe weather conditions. Intense flooding and mud made transportation by foot or horse difficult. Furthermore, the city was not capable of dealing with mass sewage. Streets became filthy, the city smelled, and the unsanitary conditions caused illness. At this time, sewage was being dumped into the waters of Lake Michigan. To remedy the increasing health issues and stench, the city proposed to raise the city by 5 feet to install a mass underground sewage system. The five story Briggs Hotel was raised while still open and operating, proving a true feat to the world. Also, through the use of a lock system, the flow of the Chicago River was reversed to stop open dumping in the lake.
After twenty years of success, the power of Chicago was challenged with the horrendous damage of the Great Chicago River of 1870. Most of the city was constructed using wood, causing the fire to spread rampantly, destroying 18,000 buildings and killing 300 people. The Chicago Water Tower, which is located on Chicago and Michigan Avenues is one of the only remaining buildings. To recover, the city completely restructured the city’s layout to be further away from the swampy lakefront and be built using steel. This also led to the revolutionary invention of the skyscraper (the Home Insurance Building) to utilize the vertical space.
As a mark of recovery, Chicago hosted the World’s Colombian Exposition of 1893, which celebrated the anniversary of Columbus’s arrival to the New World. Over 27 million people attended the fair, making the fair and Chicago and symbol of American development and power. The Museum of Science and Industry remains as an original building of the World’s Fair.
The industrial success of the city drew immigrants of Europe and people from rural areas surrounding the city to work in factories. However, this created an imbalance of power, with wealthy money mongers ruling the city, creating dire work environments for a rapidly growing poor working class. Tension began to build, and the Prohibition era and Great Depression only brought more tension and violence. African American also flocked to the city at this time from the Great Migration. Different racial groups settled near each other, often competing for similar jobs. Friction over territory, work, and overcrowding caused severe racial tension that eventually broke out into the 1919 Chicago Race Riots that lasted for six days. Arson and looting were rampant during this time, and close to 100 people were murdered.
The bloody and corrupt environment of Chicago continued with the Prohibition era that led to the power of Al Capone and the rise of intense violent gang activity. Al Capone dominated the liquor supply to the city, giving him extreme power. Even from jail after he was found guilty for the organization of a bloody killing of five members of the North Side Gang, known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, he continued to have a tight hold on the governing of the city.
The city continued to see severe ups and downs even after a small recovery after WWII and the end of the Great Depression. Dissatisfaction and unrest still swept the city through the 1970’s. Finally, the economic improvement of the 1980’s brought growth in population, particularly to neighborhoods that were previously worn down and violent, as well as building development in the Loop. This included the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower), which today is the countries tallest building. Today, the city continues to be a dominating metropolis of the U.S., continuing to expand and grow.